Chicago fire department investigators have discovered that the city’s old Main Post Office, the site of a stubborn blaze a week ago, had a completely inoperable fire suppression system. They said the building would be cited for unspecified violations.
Arriving firefighters attempted to hook their hoses to the building’s standpipe system, a standard procedure which sends water rushing through pipes to the floors above. But the standpipe system didn’t work, forcing firemen to use hand pumps and a tower ladder on the ground to fight the fire, which broke out in a ventilation shaft which ran from below the building to the roof.
The inspectors who visited the building Thursday discovered that the fire pumps which normally would have pushed the water through the pipes were completely inoperable. They reportedly found fire extinguishers which had expired in 2007.
The building has been largely vacant since the U.S. Postal Service left the venerable old structure for a more modern facility across Harrison Street in the 90s. A private firm, International Property Developers, took over ownership of the building, and was targeted by Amtrak in a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month for failure to maintain the very ventilation systems cited in last week’s blaze.
Those ducts are designed to carry fumes from the train tracks, which run below the building, up and away from Union Station’s south concourse.
IPD says from the time it took ownership of the building, it maintained a dialogue with the fire department about the best ways to keep the sprawling building safe, while it was awaiting redevelopment. But Amtrak said in its lawsuit, that the new owners had done “little if anything to maintain the Old Post Office. The Old Post Office is unoccupied and the area in and around the structure is in general disrepair.”
“We’ve been talking with the building owner about properly maintaining this building since they took over,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman. Informed that the fire department had found an inoperable fire system in the building, he said, “what they found since then is not inconsistent with our concerns.”
A visit to the building revealed a crumbling exterior, surrounded on several sides by a chain link fence. Large chunks of the exterior could be seen on the ground around the building, including a broken pediment which once heralded the building’s purpose as Chicago’s flagship postal facility. Several standpipes stood uncapped, and one security camera had been stripped from the building, its video cable dangling useless below.
A fire in the giant building would prove disastrous to Union Station, where the south concourse sends dozens of Amtrak and Metra commuter trains directly under the Post Office every day.
“We’ve been concerned about the maintenance of this building for more than a year,” said Magliari. “I can’t speculate as to a ‘what if’. I can simply tell you the south concourse is the busiest part of this station.”
IDP said in a statement that it would do whatever was needed to bring the building into compliance, and noted that when they took ownership of the building, they put together a manual to aid arriving firefighters in navigating the labyrinthine interior.
“We will continue to work with the fire department and update the Old Post Office as best we can, all while working toward city approval to bring the building into the 21st century."